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Reviewer: David Kan
Digital Source: Restek Radiant CD player, Assemblage D2D-1/DAC-3.1 Platinum, Micromega Microdrive, Deltec PDM Two DAC, Marantz SA6820
Preamp: Symphonic Line RG3 Mk III, Micromega Variodac as preamp, KingRex Preamp, Audio Space Pre-2 [on loan], Dared MC-7P [on loan]
Power Amp/integrated Amp: Symphonic Line RG4 Mk III, Nu Force Reference 9 and 9 SE, Dared VP-20, Dared VP-16, Dared MP-2A3C, Audio Zone AMP-ST, Kingrex T-20, Winsome-Labs Mouse [on loan], Nu Force Reference 9 V2 [on loan], Audio Space Nova M-34 [on loan], Audio Zone D-1 stereo amp [on loan]
Speakers: Klipsch Synergy F2, Mark & Daniel Maximus-Monitor w. Omni-Harmonizer, Maximus-Ruby
Cables: Symphonic Line Reference interconnect, Clearaudio Silver Line interconnect, Deltec Black Slink interconnect, Luscombe LBR-35 interconnect, Unity Audio Solid Link interconnect [on loan], Symphonic Line The Fast speaker cables, OCOS speaker cables by Dynaudio, Unity Audio Solid Link single-wire/Shotgun bi-wire speaker cables [on loan], Orphee Audio digital cable, Aural Symphonic Digital Standard digital cable
Power Cords: Aural Symphonic Missing Link, Ensemble Powerflux, Unity Audio Link Precision Link [on loan]
Power Line Conditioning: Tice Power Block IIIC, Monster Power HTS-3500 Mk II (modified by Nu Force), Monster Power HTS-1000 Mk II
Room Size: 12' x 24' x 9' opens to 12' x 17' x 9' L-shape, short wall setup / 13' x 28' 8" x 9' with openings on one side to hallway and staircase, short wall setup
Review component retail: Sapphire $2,240/pr, Topaz $1,800/pr, matching stand $700/pr
The convenient truth
Nobody ever thought of challenging the orthodox 2-way loudspeaker design quite like Mark Wong and Daniel Lee had in mind when they donned their thinking caps and threw down the gauntlet for complacent designers and lazy users of 2-way loudspeakers. When the duo founded Mark & Daniel Audio Labs in 2004, they knew they were braving the tide and starting a revolution. They revisited conventional 2-way loudspeakers from scratch by lowering the ubiquitous crossover point from the industry standard of 2,000/3,000Hz to 800/900Hz. They redesigned the woofer with a short voice coil in a long magnetic gap and manufactured their patented Super Xmax driver to be capable of deeper undistorted bass with much higher dynamic SPL output. They remodeled Oskar Heil's air-motion transformer and expanded it into their own DREAMS unit (Directly Responding Emitter by Air Motion Structure) to cover the entire five top octaves. Never before have we seen a woofer quite this small and potent and a tweeter/midrange quite so big, so capable of high acoustic power and low FMD pollution. To house two such high-power drivers, M&D resorted to equivalently overbuilt enclosures made of MDF on the inside and CAM (compound artificial marble) outside. The results are taut and clean bass mass and extension never before anticipated from such small 2-way loudspeakers - and lifelike, coherent vocals and treble with an optimal balance between resolution and musicality. Wrapping up these good news, while all the design blueprints and patent papers are generated in M&D's Tucson/Arizona office, manufacturing takes place in Shanghai, China. You of course will know what that means - a dynamic expander for your wallet.
Mark & Daniel have truly found their winning formula and within two short years introduced ten models from miniature bookshelf monitors to a 280 lbs floorstanding flagship - all in their favored 2-way configurations. Recently two members have been added to the family called the Maximus-Sapphire and Maximus-Topaz. The Maximus speakers, by M&D's definition, are bookshelf loudspeakers of sufficient SPL output to match or exceed that of medium-sized floorstanders by the competition. To simplify the naming conventions, let's just call the new 'uns Sapphire and Topaz. To be honest, I was taken by surprise when Daniel broke these news. Two new models in the same enclosure size and at the same time? Would they better my Ruby? Apparently both are modifications based on the Ruby platform. The Topaz even adopts the same enclosure. I did have my concerns.
You see, I'm to this day a very happy owner of two Mark & Daniel Maximus models, the Maximus-Monitor and the Maximus-Ruby. Our editor Srajan owns the Ruby and though he doesn't hand out awards easily, granted them a Blue Moon Award. In our combined reviews, you needn't read between the lines to understand that the Mark & Daniel speakers are power hungry. As reported, my 50wpc Audio Zone AMP-ST clipped during orchestral climaxes when driving the Ruby. Both Srajan and I concurred that you need beefy muscle amps to feed the M&D giant killers. And that is exactly why the new models were introduced - giant killers that feed on a lower calorie diet!
For starters, the Ruby, Topaz and Sapphire all sport identical dimensions (11.4" H x 6.7" W x 8.4" D) and will sit snugly on their matching CAM stands. However , they are not entirely identical in specs or cosmetics:
The Topaz appears almost identical to the Ruby except for its distinguishing black dust cap. The CAM enclosure is basically interchangeable. While the DM-4 Dreams module remains the same, the crossover network is different. As well, the 5.2" SX woofer has been redesigned with major modifications to the motor structure, a lighter cone and a new voice coil to complement the new crossover network. The SX driver's magnet strength was raised to achieve a higher efficiency (85.5dB) while linear excursion was cut back to +/- 7.5mm, thereby yielding an F3 of 48Hz compared to Ruby's 45Hz. By traditional 2-way bookshelf standards, these figures are still exceptional. Before I knew anything about the specs, I noticed during my initial audition that the bass of the Topaz was not as deep as that of the Ruby. I thought it had something to do with the fact that the Topaz was fresh out of the box. Then I checked the specs and conferred with Daniel who explained the following:
"The F3 is defined as the point of the lowest bass response being down 3dB compared to the average output level of mid frequencies. At the F3 point, -3 dB means the driver can only reproduce half the acoustic power of the average sound level. With frequencies below the F3 point, acoustic output diminishes further but remains audible. That is why Srajan in his review declared that Ruby is active even down to 30Hz though its F3 is at 45Hz. There is information remaining below the F3 but its loudness of course is reduced. You can see some subwoofer makers specify the F6 (-6dB i.e. 1/4 output power) to indicate that their subwoofers will reproduce a lower bass frequency still, just not at full output."
|Even with an F3 of 48Hz, the Topaz delivers impressive bass for a miniature bookshelf. What's more important, the M&D signature sound prevails with the same density and articulation that make M&D so special. The Topaz was simply designed to match more amplifiers and thus appeal to a much wider group of users. Naturally, I returned to the Audio Zone AMP-ST to drive the Topaz and try out all the usual amp-killing orchestral fireworks I could dig up. No clipping, no distortion, no compression, just glorious sound. Next I paired up the Topaz with my 12wpc Dared VP-16 integrated amp. Both the Electro-Harmonix 6V6GT and Shuguang 6P6P tubes felt very much at home with this load. Perhaps I should experiment with the puny Trends Audio TA-10 next?
|The Sapphire enclosure has conformed to the style of the higher-grade Aragorn model by gaining deeply beveled edging and a slanted profile. Viewed from certain angles under certain light conditions, the eye may be tricked to believe that the enclosure is actually narrower at the top. It's not but the beveled edging suggests it. Unlike the Aragorn, the Sapphire has done away with the grill and therefore bears no screw holes for the magnetized metal studs which the mask snaps onto. That's an instant eye pleaser I must say. It really makes the speaker look more elegant and streamlined. On the back, the Sapphire sports two ports and bi-wire posts, doubling up on both counts over the Ruby and Topaz. Inside, both the SX woofer and the crossover have been completely revamped. One striking difference is the larger rubber surround and heavier cone mass for the new 5.2" SX woofer. This became physically necessary since the new woofer implements
|a 35% stronger motor than the Ruby, providing yet higher excursion and output capabilities. The new crossover includes a larger diameter inductor and higher quality capacitors for an improved sound alignment.
Daniel elaborated further: "Although the F3 of 45Hz remains the same for the Sapphire as for the Ruby, the Q-factor over the whole cone pistonic range has been improved. I expect you will distinguish the tighter bass response during your audition. I also cut down the high frequency response between 6 and 9KHz a bit so the HF reproduction may not seem as energetic as the Ruby's. If possible, I strongly suggest to bi-amp the Sapphires. I sincerely believe bi-amp drive will net significant sonic improvements."
In the spec and info sheet Daniel emailed, it states that although the Sapphire is a "monitor-grade miniature speaker, two mid-power amplifiers can be configured as a bi-amp playback system for cost savings." I have tried my NuForce Reference 9s and Reference 9SEs with the Maximus-Monitor for truly stunning results. I also have another possible bi-amp contender, four Restek/Thorens monoblocks capable of doing 70wpc at 4 ohms each. That should fit the mid-power criteria. But curiosity brought out worse in me yet.
First I tried the Dared VP-20s since I have four of these mini monoblocks. Even though each of them yields only 18 watts and not quite qualifies for mid power, I couldn't wait to find out how these new M&Ds would sound with my favourite 6L6 tubes. To tell you the truth, I was as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking tube amps when I cautiously cranked up the volume, playing back some mercilessly thundering pieces. I kept going until I reached my usual full-blooded levels. No clipping, no signs of distress. It worked! My lovely Mark & Daniel signature sound was as focussed and potent as ever, albeit with a warm shade of tube overtones. The 6L6 tubes never sounded so muscular, so potent yet so analytical and musical. Joy had taken over fear.
I became as bold as brass and started to tamper with some tiny T-amps. No, not my Trends Audio TA-10s but the Kingrex T-20 with separate PSU, of which I requested two loaner sets from the Taiwanese manufacturer for a bi-amp audition. At least these amps are "more powerful" since they incorporate the Tripath T-2020 chip to deliver 20wpc into 4 ohms as compared to the TA-10's 15 watts. That worked unexpectedly fine too. Perhaps it was time to amplify my courage level and put my Dared MP-2A3C SET integrated amp to the test. When I cranked its volume up to the 4 o'clock position, there still was no trace of mass destruction. Though compromising the bass capability of the Sapphire, the 2A3 amp still managed to weave out silky smooth string passages and choral harmonies. So much for recklessness. I retreated in time before I caused any significant casualties.
Admittedly, none of this was terribly meaningful or conclusive from an audiophile point of view. I'm still far from being able to recommend any particular T-amps or tube amps for either the Topaz or the Sapphire. Still, early signs are encouraging. A $400 Little Dot T-100 Tripath amp with 100wpc into 4 ohms is presently being shipped to me for audition. I even asked Kallisto to loan me two of their just-reviewed 300B amps to bi-amp the Sapphire. If my 2A3 amp can drive the Sapphire, it certainly can drive the Topaz. Then the 300B Kallisto should be a breeze. Possibilities, possibilities. I know I still have a lot of serious listening to do over the next few months. As of today though, we've learned one convenient truth already. We can now all enjoy the precious Mark & Daniel sound with greener, less powerful (and less power-consuming) amps. That's great news by any measure!